State spends $100 million on rent assistance, with $200 million more to go

By: - March 1, 2022 6:23 am

The home where an eviction case in February landlord told a Clovis magistrate judge last week he intended to sell this home, making it unnecessary for him to enroll in a new eviction diversion program. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

A state agency announced last week that it had spent $100 million on rental and utility assistance for state residents, helping to stave off mass evictions during a pandemic. 

New Mexico officials called the big, round number a “historic milestone” and said hundreds of millions more are on the way to help renters and landlords. Still, advocates are raising fresh concerns about whether money from the Emergency Rent Assistance Program is reaching people who need it most, now that the nation’s last statewide eviction ban is on its way out. 

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Funds got out to nearly 30,000 households across the state, according to the department — an average of $4,000 per household went toward rent and another $750 toward utilities. 

New Mexico received a total of $352 million through two federal spending bills passed since December 2020 for rental and utility assistance, though some of that money goes for administering the fund and to housing-related programs. Officials say $200 million is left to spend directly on rent assistance and utilities, plus other housing programs, between now and September 2025. 

On Tuesday, Chainbreaker Collective, a Santa Fe-based group of tenant advocates, will host a news conference about the state’s new housing policies, including that “rental assistance support has been slow to get into the hands of people who need it most,” according to a news release. 

The collective, lawmakers and housing experts criticized the state’s handling of the program last year for delays, hurdles and confusing instructions, specifically for people who speak primarily Spanish. 

Recently, however, New Mexico Rep. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) told a Senate panel that the state’s program represented a “gold standard” in the country, saying it now has built the capacity to get funds out to tenants. 

That money will become increasingly necessary as the statewide ban on non-payment evictions disappears across the state sometime in the coming month. The exact date has not been determined, a court spokesperson said Monday. 

In early February, the ban first disappeared in a rural eastern part of the state, which also became a testing ground for a new court program aimed at softening the blow. 

Under the pilot court program, judges in Curry and Roosevelt Counties were directed to try to get landlords to wait 60 days before throwing someone out, and to connect them with the rent assistance fund. 

The first week of the court’s pilot program showed mixed results among the handful of tenants who were brought before a judge in the rural part of the state, according to a review by Source New Mexico. 

In a tiny NM courtroom, evictions begin again

Housing advocates in the past have pointed to a couple of reasons landlords might not want emergency money and choose to evict anyway: Re-renting a home at a higher rate in a hot housing market could be more lucrative, and they might prefer to avoid some taxes.

Plus, renters facing eviction there, in interviews, said they didn’t know the rent assistance fund was available. Neither did a Clovis housing official nor the person who runs the only shelter in the city.

Program administrators did not do specific outreach in the rural region where renters would be first up for eviction before the ban was lifted there, spokesperson Henry Valdez told Source New Mexico. 

But tenants and landlords in the two counties received about 2,000 payments totaling about $3.5 million in rent assistance since the program began, he said. 

Henry Valdez was a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees the federal emergency rent money in New Mexico. Now he works for MediaDesk, a PR company contracted by the state to handle outreach about the fund.

Slightly less than half of the $100 million paid to tenants so far has gone to tenants in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, which has 44% of the state’s rental units, Valdez said. Officials use application data to determine where to step up outreach, given how many renters they know to live in a certain area, he said.

Public records requested by Source New Mexico unearthed a survey early on in the program’s existence showing a lack of awareness among renters. Followup research hasn’t yet been done to show whether the state moved the needle on that problem, and what parts of New Mexico may still be in the dark, according to Valdez.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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